We always sat together for the bus ride home. The two players who bridged the boy-girl gap, but not the only two who practiced together. At that age, I felt it was a measure of myself that a boy found me tough enough to be a real competitor.
I sat across his desk from him as he used his soldering gun to burn texture onto wood. It had changed drastically from the previous day. It was a rough-cut hunk of white oak, a piece he’d scavenged after lightning killed the eighty-year old tree. After ten hours of carving, gouging and sanding, the hunk took on the form of a small bird. Today, he added the feathers.
He wore two sets of glasses – his usual pair and his bifocals. He peered through both sets, studying his work. Next to the soldering gun, he had a small gouge, and in a piece of soft pine, he had stuck the legs. They were made of copper wire that he meticulously cut, twisted, and etched until every crease of “flesh” and the curves of the tiny claws were just so. He made everything but the eyes. Those, he ordered from a ceramic eye company.
He spared the book on his desk a look, making sure that the layering was coming along as it should.
“I’m glad you decide to stay another year,” I said.
“My wife wants me to retire so we can take cruises,” he said. “I suppose I can carve just as well on a boat deck as in this office.”
“At least she won’t make you give that up.”
“Oh no. She knows a cash cow when she sees one.” He shook his head, his brow drawn down. “I used to make all sorts of things and just give them away, and one day she put her foot down and said I should make money off them. It’s in her blood; she can’t help it.” He made so much off his carvings that he had to get a business license and report his income to the IRS. “I think it was when I made a violin for one of the doctor’s children that she insisted I charge for it.”
I blinked deliberately. “You made a violin?”
“Yes. I’m going to make a guitar for him,” he gestured to the office next door, “out of the same tree this came from,” he waved the bird. “It’s his tree, so I’ll give him a discount.”
I shook my head. “So, what are you feathering today?”
“A youth grosbeak.”
He leaned forward and let me take the bird while he turned the book around for me to see. One side of the feathering was complete, and I could see exactly how the bird would look once he painted it. He would spend a day layering, dabbing, and washing color over the body until it was perfect. Then, he would paint the legs, pop them in, and add the eyes. When he finished, it would look as though a real grosbeak perched on his pine block – a perfect replica. It would go for $200, easily.
“May I look?” I asked, pointing at the book.
“Sure,” he said, taking the bird from me and sliding the book over the desk. The motion sent a spill of curlicues over the edge of the desk. “I suppose I’ll be chided for that,” he murmured as he looked down at the mess.
“Well, you have to do something to pass the time until the whistle blows.”
That made him smile. He liked to compare the job to something blue collar. He’d been in it for over twenty years but only recently felt pressure to stay in his office a required number of hours every day. It was just another reason to call it quits.
“We punch our time cards like the sheepdog and coyote,” he said.
When we weren’t working, he carved and I read, or we sat together and talked. One day we sat outside and watched as a hawk tried to pluck a squirrel from the side of a pine tree. I was rapt as I watched the tree rat wait until the last possible moment to scoot around the tree, just out of the hawk’s grasp. The raptor would squawk, fly back, adjust, and fly in again. We stood watching for so long that we grew bored and went back in the building.
Now, it was too cold to stand outside comfortably.
“I saw a crow dead on the side of the road on my way in this morning,” he said. “Strange business. Crows are too intelligent to get killed in the road.”
I looked up from his book on North American bird species. “I saw something on Discovery about how crows in some city or another would drop nuts into crosswalks and let cars run over them. They watched for when the people would cross and knew they would be safe to retrieve the nuts.”
“It’s nice to have someone that enjoys learning around this place.” He grinned at me, and I chuckled. We were, after all, in a building on a college campus. “What are you looking for?”
“A particular type of black bird,” I said, turning the book around to him.
“Did it have a breast of burnt orange and a light yellow beak?”
“No, its breast was cream.”
“Oh, then it was a regular blackbird and not an oriole. Did you kill it?”
“No,” I said, stunned.
“Pity,” he said, picking up the soldering gun. A curl of smoke and the scent of charring wood filled the office. “Terrible birds, blackbirds. They rob bluebird nests. Did you know?” I shook my head when he looked up at me. He nodded. “They aren’t native. Some moron thought it was a brilliant idea to bring to America every bird Shakespeare mentioned in a play or poem. They call them starlings, trying to give a trashy bird a better name. Kill every one that you can.”
Our relationship was like that – here and there only a moment of contact but with enough impact to make a mark. Not a bad one, mind you.
Our mothers played tennis together, and this was how we first met. My mother often dragged me to the courts and left me in the clubhouse with a lunchbox of toys. Even though I would’ve preferred being left at the swimming pool, this wasn’t often possible, but I had an active imagination and could make do with my toys and an almost-house.
One day, I sat upon one of the bamboo sofas with neon palm tree printed cushions (hey, it was the 80’s) and applied makeup to a Barbie head. He came in, looked at me, and said, “That’s terrible, and look at her hair!” It didn’t matter that he was six years older, he sat with me and showed me how to brush the tangles from her hair without ripping it out of her scalp. Why would he play with me? This, I asked my mother. “He has a little sister. He knows your brother.” Judging by how rarely my brother allowed me to play with him, I couldn’t understand how this was an answer.
He sat with me on the porch of the clubhouse and helped me tear out dresses for my paper dolls. “Don’t be impatient or you’ll rip the folding tabs.” No, I couldn’t abide that. This obsessive trait, we mutually understood.
“Here,” my tennis coach said, “Practice returning Jason’s serve.” It glanced off the top of my racket and hit me in the chin. He crossed the net to have a look at it. “Sorry,” he said and smiled.
I stood beside an outdoor fireplace, plastic cup of keg beer in hand, chatting with another girl. I saw him and he me. “Oh my God! Is that you?” Yes, it was. “How old are you?” I was eighteen. “Really?” We talked for three hours.
I hugged him at his engagement party. By now, he was a dentist, and I was working on my bachelor’s.
I chatted with him at someone else’s engagement party, told him I was married and that I was a teacher. “You’re too smart to do that.” Well, kids need smart teachers. “It was good to see you.” You, too, and it was the last time.
<the stone sinks>
On my way to my parents’ house, I passed a house where my childhood best friend’s husband grew up. It’s a square cinderblock house, the kind where one side of the block is coated with ceramic asbestos paint. It’s a terrible puke-mint-green color with a white door, no shutters, and no shrubbery. It looks somehow naked without those things.
He hated the house, called it The Cracker Box both because it was the approximate size of a cracker box and because many people in the small, conservative community considered him and his *gasp* divorced mother to be white trash. His mother is a first rate Hell-bitch. She once broke her ring and pinkie fingers by slapping him with her rings turned so that the stones were inside her palm. He came to homeroom bleeding from three cuts on his chin and laughed when I told him. She was mean and tough but had to be. She had a strong-willed boy to raise with no help from family. She refused all government aid.
She waited until after he graduated from high school to marry her long-time “boyfriend.” When she did, she moved out to his lakehouse and sold The Cracker Box. It’s now Don’s Pawn Shop. A large fluorescent sign with a giant pistol on top pokes out of the lawn to let potential customers know that cash for Christmas is only a sale away. It’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen. Someone I cared about lived there, grew up there, lost his virginity there, and now there’s is a giant pistol on top of a sign in the front yard. Strange.